While Julian MacLaren-Ross could turn a reasonable sentence, I’ve always felt the cult that exists around this writer is based more on his sad bohemian life than his books. Therefore it has taken me a few years to get around to reading Paul Willetts 2005 biography of this bourgeois clown. Fear & Loathing In Fitzrovia is a fantastically well researched book, and for fans of MacLaren-Ross I’m sure it provides them with everything they want. For the rest of us there is a certain amusement to be gained from the repetitious nature of the MacLaren-Ross spendthrift life-style, which resulted in endless moonlight flits, but it only serves to confirm what most readers already know, he was ultimately a bore.
Since I’m not a MacLaren-Ross enthusiast, I found his biography rather more interesting for the way it mapped Bohemian London in the 1940s and 1950s than how it dealt with his life, and as such it might be cross-referenced with other works about that period such as Nigel Richardson’s Dog Days In Soho: One Man’s Adventures in 1950s Bohemia. I found it curious that Willetts makes no mention of Colin MacInnes, a writer who like MacLaren-Ross frequented the French pub and various Soho drinking clubs; both of them also did a huge amount of work for the BBC. MacLaren-Ross was born in 1912, MacInnes two years later, and both left London as children to return to England more or less as adults. Both were considered difficult by their cultural industry peers, and both ‘enjoyed’ a rather nomadic life-style. However, while MacLaren-Ross was straight and suffered from some unbelievably sad sexual fixations (the most notorious instance of this being his pursuit of Sonia Orwell), MacInnes was gay. Given the latter writer’s taste for rough trade, it perhaps isn’t surprising that MacInnes embraced the working class youth culture of the 1950s and celebrated it in his novels, whereas MacLaren-Ross appears to have resented it.
Willetts has written as good a biography as one could hope for about MacLaren-Ross, but a compare and contrast exercise with MacInnes would have proved much more interesting. There are so many similarities between them that seeing where and how differences emerge is illuminating. That said, Fear & Loathing In Fitzrovia does at least demonstrate yet again that a posh education and at least the appearance of coming from an over-privileged background count for more within the British literary establishment than actual talent. So while class issues are never far from the surface in the Willetts tome, a more overt exposition of such matters would have been very welcome. For all their bohemian gloss, at the end of the day both MacInnes and MacLaren-Ross are bourgeois and square. Real life lies elsewhere. Nonetheless, Willetts is to be congratulated on his research, a very thorough job; and obviously he’s not to blame for the fact that bourgeois social relations conspire to make biography such a dominant genre within the book trade.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!